Crusading Housewife Strives for Bay of Pigs Closure
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
OSKIWAS, Nicaragua - As the Black Hawk helicopter alighted on a remote
hillside, a team of forensics specialists from the U.S. Army's Central
Identification Laboratory in Hawaii strode forward to welcome the visitors.
With any luck, the military specialists speculated, the VIPs would be
properly prepared for this trek. The climbing would be rugged and the
chiggers thick and bloodthirsty; they also carry mountain leprosy.
Looking as spiffy as they could in the jungle heat, the seven men and two
women from the lab were about to begin sifting dirt in search of the
remains of two Cuban-American fliers who crashed during the Bay of Pigs
invasion 37 years ago.
At the crash site, hundreds of bits and pieces of a B-26 jutted from the
ground. Vegetation was still being cleared by Nicaraguan farmers hired
especially for the task, some of them former Sandinista soldiers and some
of them former Contras.
The visitors included Cuban-born U.S. Ambassador Lino Gutierrez,
Nicaraguan Defense Minister Jaime Cuadra and a Miami housewife whose
relentless efforts gave rise to this search: Janet Ray Weininger.
"The goal is to bring back the remains with honor and dignity," said Mrs.
Weininger. "It's a code of loyalty that you have for those who have gone
Those who went before were Crispin Garcia and Juan de Mata Gonzalez,
two Cuban exiles from Miami who were on a bombing mission during the
1961 Bay of Pigs operation when their B-26 crashed into a mountainside
during a nighttime storm.
Then-dictator Anastasio Somoza, a CIA asset, visited the site shortly after
the crash but decided to allow the bodies - and the story - to remain
The agency was not eager to let it be known just how involved it had
been in the Bay of Pigs invasion; that it was training Cuban exiles and
using secret bases in Nicaragua; or that it had the cooperation of Somoza.
Most details of the crash remained secret until last year, when they were
declassified by the agency. In the intervening years, however, an Alabama
girl from a military family was growing up and asking questions for which
there were only vague answers.
For 18 years, the questions revolved around her father, Pete Ray, who
was killed in a separate incident during the Bay of Pigs operation.
"What was my dad doing there? Why had his plane been shot down?
Where was he buried?" Those were the questions that plagued Mrs.
She badgered congressmen and senators in every state where she lived
with her pilot husband. She queried the U.S. military, the CIA, Cuban exiles
in Miami. If they refused to talk to her over the phone, she flew at her
own expense to meet them. She became an expert at seeking documents
under the Freedom of Information Act.
With her honeyed Southern accent and beaming smile, she got old buddies
of her father to put her onto other contacts from whom she gleaned new
details about her father's military record and - as she would slowly learn -
his CIA background.
After 18 years, she discovered that her father's corpse was still being
preserved in a Havana freezer. She then got the U.S. government to put
pressure on President Fidel Castro until he authorized the release of the
Mrs. Weininger was finally able to bring her daddy home.
"When I brought him back to the States, I wrote him a long letter and I
said `I will always love you and I will always need you, but I want you to
know that if you had it to do all over again, I would want you to do it just
the way you did.' "
Through her long association with Cuban exiles, Mrs. Weininger learned
there were others looking for lost loved ones. And she went to work on
the cases of Crispin Garcia and Juan de Mata Gonzalez with the same
fervor that allowed her to ferret out the facts about her father.
Three years ago, Mrs. Weininger put together the final piece of the puzzle
and found this site. The son of one of the pilots, Frank Garcia, was with
her at the time.
"It was this intense feeling," she remembered on her latest visit to the
site. "It was exactly 34 years from the day the plane went down. I
wondered what was going through Frank's mind to be at the place where
his father died."
Mrs. Weininger's next task was to win CIA support for her effort to, as
puts it, "bring these men home."
Finally, things fell into place. Documents were declassified, information
confirmed and new details were revealed.
The U.S. Embassy in Managua agreed to help her. The Nicaraguan
government of President Arnoldo Aleman agreed to do all it could. And just
a few weeks ago, the CIA announced it would spend $70,000 on the
"Mr. Garcia and Mr. Gonzalez distinguished themselves by their valor and
their patriotism and made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our nation,"
CIA Director George Tenet said in a statement.
"The agency recognizes the sacrifices their families have made. Returning
our fallen colleagues to the United States for burial is not only a
humanitarian gesture, but also is the right thing to do."
Just a few days later, Mrs. Weininger was on her way from Miami, the
identification lab team was making its way from Honolulu, and the Black
Hawk helicopters were winging in from a U.S. installation in Honduras.
U.S. Army forensic experts say the painstaking task of sifting for bones
and teeth should be finished early in April. It will be several months more
before DNA testing can positively identify the remains.
But for Mrs. Weininger, who will spend Easter in a tent here far from her
husband and two children in Miami, the goal has been realized.
"It's tough conditions, but it's something my heart tells me to do. The
story is not about me. It's really not about the families per se. It's about
two guys who did the right thing. It's about the U.S. government. . . .
"When I first got on the Black Hawk this trip, the tears were just streaming
down my face, and someone said, `What is it? Are you afraid?' And I said,
`No, I'm just so proud of our country and what they really can do.'
As she spoke, members of the identification lab team listened respectfully,
and a soldier reached out to shake her hand. Around his wrist was a
bracelet honoring the memory of American MIAs.